Low Cost Halloween Pop-up Character




After looking at some of the available kits for making a pop-up character, they seemed of good quality but I have a lot of left over stuff in my garage and felt I could build one for less than the cost of the kit. And I offer this for the do it yourself person who may have some left over lawn sprinkler pipes as I did. This one works on compressed air and 110VAC or 12VDC to operate the air valve. If you use a remote as I did, I would go with the 110VAC. If you want to use a foot switch or step on to activate pad then I would recommend the 12VDC version.

Step 1: Here Is What You Need:

-30" of IPs PVC pipe (this is the thin walled stuff)
-30" of Schedule 40 PVC pipe(this is the thick walled stuff)
-NPT Pneumatic Valve, from STC, PN is 2P025 -3 (this is the 110VAC you can also buy a 12VDC version if preferred), the site is: http://www.stcvalve.com/Process%20Valve.htm?gclid=COqB7_vF8pUCFRNOagodHHT1ew
-1, 1/2" PVC Cap
-1, 3/4" PVC Cap
-1, 1/2" 90deg PVC Elbow to 1/2" NPT thread
-1, 1/4" NPT Female thread air chuck (sometimes called plug)
-Various 1/4" NPT thread extension pipes and adapters
-22mm x 5 M Heat Shrink Tubing Item 98068 from Harbor Freight, http://www.harborfreightusa.com
-Garbage can
-PVC Adhesive
-1/2" to 3/4" thick plywood about 2' x 2'
-2" wood screw
-1, 1/4" diameter wood dowel 5" long
-Automotive Hose clamp
-3ft lamp cord with plug on end
-Scary (Lightweight) Head such as a Halloween mask, skull, pumpkin (your choice)
-Westinghouse Wireless Remotely Operated Switch Model No. 28068 or equivalent - web site http://www.gatecomusa.com/product_info.php?products_id=2048

Optional Items:
-Sound FX Scream Unit ( bought this item at a costume shop, could not find a web source for it)
-Micro Switch - Normally Closed (when not depressed)
-1, 3/4" PVC Tee
-Threaded rod with 4 matching nuts.
-S bracket
-90 degree bracket
-Red light hooked up to a flicker circuit, see good Instructable at https://www.instructables.com/id/Haunted-Flicker-Light-Adapter/
-Fog Machine

Step 2: Make the Base

This is simple, just cut a piece of 1/2" or 3/4" plywood in a shape that fits your trash can. Mine is round, and I cut 2 of the edges flat to allow the fog from the fog machine to circulate better. Drill a hole to clear your 2" wood screw approximately in the center. Counter sink the back side. Add two 2" x 4"s to the bottom, on edge and perpendicular to the flat sides. This is to lift the base off the bottom of the can also aid with fog circulation.

Step 3: Make the Strong Back

Cut a piece of 1, 1/4" diameter wood dowel to a length of 5". Carve a V shaped groove along its length. Depth is not critical, but about 1/4" is good. This will be used to help hold and center the 1/2" PVC pipe against the dowel. I would also pre-drill the dowel in the center for the body of the 2" wood screw to keep the dowel fro splitting. Now attach the dowel to your base with the 2" wood screw.

Step 4: Cut the PVC Pipes to Length

My trash can, or excuse me, oversize cauldron is 28" tall. So these lengths may need to be to be changed for your particular situation (for instance if this pop-up will be used behind a tomb stone you made). Cut the PVC (Larger) pipe to 16". Cut the PVC to 20". Now to help keep your featured mask from spinning around each time you use it, cut the larger 3/4" PVC at a about a 45 degree angle about 3/8" up from one end. This does not have to be very exact, just close.

Step 5: Install the Air Seal

My 1st prototype worked without this step but I had to run with about 50 psi of air, and a lot of it. After making this seal on the top end of the 1/2" PVC I could operate my pop-up with much less air, at 30 psi. Cut 2 pieces of 22mm x 5 M Heat Shrink Tubing. One should be 1/4" long. The 2nd should be 3/4" long. Heat shrink the shorter pieces first about 1/2" down from one end of the 1/2" PVC. Now put the longer one over this and center it over the smaller piece before heat-shrinking. The result should have a flat bulge in the middle. Now lubricate the end with the heat shrink. Since this is a relatively slow moving item (at least when comparing to the speed of sound), I would recommend just using candle wax. No need to heat it, just rub it on the heat shrink. This worked on mine with no problems.

Step 6: Make a Spacer

What you need is half of the end cap with the top removed. This will allow you to clamp the 1/ PVC to the dowel with only 1 automotive hose clamp. I cut mine on a band saw by putting the end cap on a scrap piece of PVC. This can also be done by the Arm Strong method using a hack saw. Cut the top off 1st. Then turn the cap and scrap PVC 90degrees and cut the end cap in half.

Step 7: Assemble the Valve Assembly

Attach 1/2" 90deg PVC Elbow, Female thread air chuck, and Pneumatic Valve with your various fittings. Pay attention to the arrow on the Valve. It shows the direction of the air flow and should point toward the 90 deg Elbow. The picture shows a short pipe between the valve and the Air Chuck. I later extended this so the air chuck was just sticking outside of my trash can. I found this made it easier to hook up the air supply.

Step 8: Assemble the Pneumatic Lift Assembly

Glue the PVC into the elbow. Place the assembly up against the V-groove of the Strong Back (wooden dowel) with the elbow down against the plywood. Place the Spacer you made in step 6 between the PVC and the Strong Back's groove near the top of the groove. Glue this into place. Now place the Automotive Clamp over the PVC and the Strong Back. Locate it way between the Elbow and the Spacer then tighten. Slip the PVC over the PVC and check the top and verify the 2 are almost level. If not, trim one or the other until they are. Then glue the PVC Cap on the PVC. If you are the anxious type, the system can now be tested, but be warned the PVC will launch like a rocket (hey maybe that is another Instuctable?).

Step 9: Safety Restraint

Tie a strong nylon string from the base of the PVC to the Air Chuck. I added some glue in both places to help hold the knots in place. This does 2 things. One is making it safer for the little goblins who will be dropping their treats after this thing surprises them. And, along with the 45 deg cut in the PVC, helps keep your mask looking the same way each time you use it.

Step 10: Install Scary Head

I used a light weight pumpkin head. I drilled a hole in the bottom just big enough to slip the 3/4" PVC cap through. Then put a glob of glue on the cap and put the pumpkin on it. Simple as that. Now the lighter the head the faster it will pop up. I added hair for a more scary effect. This slowed down the ascent as the hair weighed more than the pumpkin head. But it is still fast enough to scare the little kids and get them to drop their candy. I think I could collect what they drop and keep it for next year. Saves money.

Step 11: Hook Up Wireless Controller

Simply crimp on the 3ft lamp cord to the Pneumatic Valve. Now the Westinghouse Wireless Remotely is not the best for this prop, but for the price it does ok. The problem is you would like a momentary push button control that only holds the valve open as long as you hold down the button. This controller is for turning on Christmas lights. So it has a separate on and off button. If your are operating this from an air storage tank, this can waist a lot of air if you leave the valve on. So be warned.

Now the Pop up is now ready to use and install in your trash can. You may want to paint some of the items black, but do not paint the portion of the 1/2" PVC that goes inside the 3/4"PVC. This will cause sticking. Now the rest of this is installing an optional screaming device. So if you are still with me, here is the process.

Step 12: Add Screamer - Optional

I found a small press to scream device at a costume store. I have not been able to find an on line sources. So if any one does please add it as a comment. This screamer was a self contained item that when you squeezed it, it would let out a pre-recorded screech. I took it apart and it was obvious where the connection was made to activate it. So I removed the rubber contact and soldered 2 wires. So when the wires are touched they activate the scream. Now solder the other ends of the wires to a Normally Closed Micro Switch.

Cut the 1, 3/4" PVC Tee as shown in the picture so you end up with an L shape. Glue a flat piece of plastic to one side also as shown. This Activation Plate will be used to activate the switch. Now glue this assembly to the base of the moving portion of the PVC pipe.

Next you need a holder for the Micro Switch that can be adjusted vertically. I used a scrap piece of S shaped metal for the base and a piece of angle aluminum to hold the switch. Drill a hole in both of these pieces that will allow the threaded rod to just pass through. Glue or bolt the micro switch, as shown, to the angle aluminum. Measure and cut the threaded rod to be long enough to hold the switch up past the Activation Plate. Screw down the S bracket and install the threaded rod. Secure with nuts on each side of the S bracket as shown. Secure the Angle bracket to the top also with 2 bolts on opposite sides. Adjust the top bolts until the Micro Switch is depressed. Now when the head pops up it will set off the screamer.

Now add a fog machine such that it blows the smoke in the trash can and add a red flickering light inside the can and your are ready for the nights fun. I'll take some more pictures after it is set up with all the decorations. Videos will be posted soon as well.

Step 13: It Is Now Ready for Action!

You now have your pop-up character ready to scare the next group of visitors at your doorstep.

Update: My son has finally uploaded a video of it working.

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    32 Discussions

    Dr Demento

    6 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks to your instructable I made a trashcan popper too. 

    I will post an instructable for mine which cost me next to nothing.

    Thank you again for the inspiration 


    7 years ago on Step 13

    sick! now bury the trashcan in ur yard haha


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Actual pneumatic cylinders can be purchased on Ebay for about $5 each if you watch. Gets rid of the whole PVC cylinder debate and just adds extra safety to the whole project.

    I also STRONGLY urge people not to use PVC for cylinders even though I have seen them work flawless in a haunt for years. Over 20 years experience here.


    9 years ago on Step 8

    This a very bad idea. You can check with just about any Halloween prop maker with experience (myself included with over 15 years) and they will tell you that using PVC for any pneumatic application is bad. PVC is meant to carry water under pressure, air is a totally different animal that will degrade the PVC and cause it to fail by exploding into shrapnel. PVC also fails quickly if it gets cold. For safety always use cylinders designed/rated for pneumatic applications. My pop-up props use them and they were cheap (like $12 on ebay). It's not worth the chance of causing injury to anyone.

    Read the information here if you don't believe me:

    4 replies
    Back RoadsImproviser

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Sorry to all I have been busy working other things and haven't checked this for some time. But a side note I have been using this prop now for 3 years. No problems to report.

    So my response to Improviser, the web link you posted to prove your point does not work. I would also ask you and others not to keep spreading internet folk lore without knowing the facts.

    So here are some facts. The issue of PVC shattering is common among plastics and is called Glass-transitioning. This is where the molecules freeze and can not take any impact (under pressure or not). To find this temperature of a plastic one should consult a proper source such as the "Modern Plastics Encyclopedia." In there you would look up Brittleness Temperature. For PVC you will find it to be -7 deg F. You will also find PVC is good up to 150-200 deg F continuous use. You can find the same information from suppliers like Port Plastics at http://www.portplastics.com/.

    Further investigation of PVC you will find air does not degrade PVC. A common sense test of this would be if it did, home improvement stores could not store the products on the shelf in the open.

    To make one nod on, air versus water in PVC pipe. Water does not compress (much) so if it is under pressure in a PVC pipe and there is no air (also compressed) in the pipe, and the pipe is below -7 Deg F, and it is struck with a sharp object, the pipe could shatter. But since water will expand very little, it will carry PVC fragments only a short distance. A PVC pipe with compressed air under the same conditions will Fail in the exact same way. However since air expands it will carry PVC fragments with it a much farther distance as the air expands to equalized with the ambient conditions.

    So if you want to use PVC in North Dakota in the middle of winter, outside, you may have a problem, whether it is under pressure or not. For people who live in the south west we don't have a lot of problems with the stuff.

    Side note to the Spud Gun crowd, I noticed MythBusters had used a PVC spud gun on their Duct Tap Tater Tosser episode. They claim they are professionals with years of experience.

    ImproviserBack Roads

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction


    Unfortunately Doug Ferguson's site phantasmechanics.com has gone offline, the owner retired. He had many years of experience in prop building and is known as the creator of several props for many you see today. The link was to a good article on the hazards of PVC under air pressure and his experiences.

    If you are in any business that deals with compressed air (or any gas) you will know that OSHA has severe penalties for use of PVC pipe to carry air. It is just not allowed for good reason.

    Maybe this government website will help:


    A quote from the United States Department of Labor OSHA document:

    It is our position that PVC pipe shall not be used as a means of transporting compressed air. This position follows the manufacturer's own statements that PVC is unsuitable for compressed air systems. We do allow the use of certain ABS materials that are specifically designed for compressed air systems. One such product is "Duraplus" air line piping system ABS pipe. However, as in any such system, the manufacturer's specifications on acceptable pressure and temperature considerations must be followed.

    Another United States Department of Labor OSHA document: Quote:

    Last year, a section of PVC pipe being used for compressed air exploded 27 feet above a warehouse floor. A fragment of the pipe flew 60 feet and embedded itself in a roll of paper. Fortunately, nobody was in the area at the time.

    A PVC pipe explosion in a new plant in Selah broke an employee's nose and cut his face.

    PVC piping buried 3 feet underground at a Yakima manufacturing plant exploded, opening up a crater approximately 4 feet deep by 3 feet across.

    Only one type of plastic pipe has been approved for use with compressed air. That pipe, Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS), is marked on the pipe as approved for compressed air supply.

    PVC shatters into pieces
    ABS splits lengthwise

    You may be lucky is all. I would hate to be the one standing nearby when it fails. Water in PVC only transfers energy, air stores potential energy. So even at relatively low pressures, PVC can suddenly release a tremendous force.
    If you rally doubt any of this, you really need to talk to the manufacturer of the PVC pipe you intend to use.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 8

    I have a PVC pneumatic spud gun which I like to shoot snowballs in the winter. I charge it to 100psi. :) :)

    Back RoadsImproviser

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Improviser, the portion that pops up is less then 2 pounds. And this design should not be used for anything heavy. The air pressure to activate is only 30 psi, and that pressure is never reached inside the cylinder, because by design it leaks. This allows the prop to return with out a complicated bleed valve. As long as the operator sets this properly, press will never reach to point of exploding. However it may crack over time and at that point it just won't work. If you are designing a pop up to lift a full sized 40 pound prop, then yes design it with the properly rated pneumatics/hydraulics.


    8 years ago on Step 12

    screaming voice fx http://www.aseanexport.com/product_info.php?cPath=2_15_18&products_id=247


    8 years ago on Step 11

    maybe make a motion sensored light so when you walk by it it triggers the valve

    your dog

    9 years ago on Introduction

    for mine i used halloween skull masks. i have a 120 PSi going into 2 tubes. i will add a picture soon.

    Back RoadsThomasR142

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks, keeping it simple took more thinking then I originally anticipated.  Let us know how yours works out.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Overkill: Arduino can add a really customizable automation to provide one-shot-delay functionality so that you can use a mat to set it off, but it won't go off more than once a minute.

    More work, but cheaper:
    A 555 timer can also be configured to do just this: Configure it in monostable mode. When its 'stable' it activates a transistor that 'allows' the foot pad signal to hit the valve. Then the timer portion locks out the switch for your choice of time. A second 555 timer (or a 556) can be used to keep the valve open for x time (about a second) after the activation. so its not just a quick burst then nothing.
    http://www.bowdenshobbycircuits.info/page9.htm#mono.gif explains using a 555 or some digital circuitry to achieve this trick.

    2 replies
    Back Roadsfrollard

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the link, I'll check it out. Since I run this on a portable air tank, I didn't want the kids just standing on it. Then the next set of goblins couldn't enjoy it. On the string I used the nylon type used in construction sites to mark out trench work. The packaging said it had an 80 lbs strength. Since this device does not have much force when it pushes up, The string has held up quite well. I used it because its flexibility. Another option could be parachute cord. Just out of curiosity, I cut the sting and at 30 psi the prop only goes up another 6 inches after it clears the top. and then lands in the trash can. But if it does break I'll spend the night going back to the trash can and putting the prop back on.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Could you use a standard sprinkler valve found at any hardware store? At my local Home Depot they are $13.15 and a 25v transformer from Radio Shack (according to their online catalog) is $6.29. Which would make a valve cost $20, no shipping, and found completely locally. If anyone's curious that sprinkler valve sold at Home Depot take 24VAC, 60Hz; they pull 400 mA inrush and 200 mA continuous. All standard sprinkler valves take the same 24VAC voltage and I think current requirements are similar.

    2 replies

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Also, the spud gun guys have ways of modifying sprinkler valves so they release all their air when a firing tube releases its air. This Instructable recommends this and this site for such modifications.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I use sprinkler valves for upwards of 100psi for just this type of application - easy peasy!